Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel and Mauritania - the latter a North African member of the Arab League -- will establish full diplomatic relations at a ceremony in Washington Thursday.
Mauritania's move comes at a time when tensions have been rising between Israel and Egypt, another Arab League member. Egypt opposes the idea of Arab states establishing ties with Israel until Israel opens negotiations with Syria.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and his Mauritanian counterpart, Ahmed Sid'Ahmed, will sign the agreement establishing diplomatic ties in the presence of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, at the State Department.
"Both Israel and the United States view the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and Mauritania ... as a milestone in the promotion of normalization, which is widely seen as the goal of the peace process which has evolved since the Madrid Conference," an Israeli Foreign Ministry statement said.
According to the ministry, Israel exchanged representatives with Mauritania in 1996. Deputy spokesman Akiva Tor said the signing today represents an "upgrading of relations."
Tor told CNSNews.com Israel had low-level representation in North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. He said the signing ceremony today shows that "things are moving forward [in the peace process] and represents general "warming of relations."
During the past few years, the desert nation has benefited from Israel's agricultural expertise, as Mauritanians have come to Israel for training.
The Mauritanian Consul in Tel Aviv told CNSNews.com that the only official permitted to comment on the development was in Mauritania and could not be contacted.
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott told CNSNews.com the upgrading of relations was being reported in local media but declined to say how people in the 100 percent Muslim nation were reacting.
Thursday's development, according to Israeli and U.S. officials, stems from Albright's meeting with foreign ministers of Israel and several Arab and Muslim states during the UN General Assembly meeting on September 24.
State Department Spokesman James Rubin said Albright had convened a "Partners of Peace" meeting, involving representatives of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Mauritania, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Tunisia.
"At that meeting, the secretary called on all of the participants, including Mauritania, who was represented there, to take steps to show support for the peace process," Rubin told reporters Wednesday.
"Secretary Albright's call was heeded in a bold step by the Mauritanian government to
establish diplomatic relations," he said.
Because of Albright's involvement, the signing ceremony was to be held in Washington, and bilateral talks between the two countries would initially be under U.S. auspices.
Rubin said he could not predict if other countries that attended the "Partners for Peace" meeting would follow suit and establish full relations with Israel.
Asked to comment on what one reporter called the "Arab League's rather nasty comments to the Mauritanians" concerning its willingness to establish ties with Israel, Rubin said: "There are the countries that make up the Arab League, and then there is the secretariat of the Arab League, and those are often different things."
He said that "there have been other developments [in recent weeks] that maybe some secretariat officials of the Arab League don't like very much, including the fact that the president of Algeria, Mr. Bouteflika, had met with Prime Minister Barak at the funeral of King Hassan of Morocco."
Israel's Foreign Ministry said Israel would "continue to work for the development and strengthening of Israel's relations with other countries in the region."